top of page

A Strange Kind of Sadness 

This act went through a long process during which my ideas developed and evolved greatly. At the point when it began to take on its final shape, I was looking at the grotesque, the frightening and the tragic in art, and I beginning to wonder, why do we find these usually unpleasant things enjoyable? Looking back I can see that I didn’t really stop to ask the question properly, and leapt to the conclusion that it was just our morbid nature. I made up my mind that the only reason we are able to enjoy these things is because of what I called the “degree of separation” that is allowed by the fact that it is art. I went as far as to suggest that this separation can be found naturally, and that the same reaction is elicited from us. I wrote a piece in which I compared the feeling to slowing down to gawp at an accident on the roadside, and asked my audience “Let me ask you, would you like to see me fall?” At this point, I realised I didn’t like what I was making. I felt uncomfortable about being judgemental about my audience for watching me. It felt ostentatious and condescending. I made a conscious decision to change direction.

      The Oxford University Press (2014) describes automatism as:

The avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations. 


 Although I don’t employ mechanical techniques or subconscious associations, nor wold I call my work surrealist by any degree, my process shares some of the values of automatism. I dislike making fully conscious decisions. Everything I do is based on a genuine inquiry and each new step comes from a discovery. I have to be honest. I never know where I am going to go next until the moment it happens; If I knew, I would go straight there. Automatism is “dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (Breton , 1924, p.26) The only impetus for development being a decision that I need to change things is difficult for me, and I don’t do it unless I absolutely have to. In fact, I can trace all the subsequent issues I had with my methods back to this point.

        The problem with my work was that I was being too direct and specific. The simplest thing seemed to be to make it less direct, more subtle. I pledged to be less pedantic about the meaning of everything. I hoped it would become a kind of feeling, rather than an obvious connotation. (I found this idea hard to justify. I know I’ve seen many things that I cannot understand, and yet I found powerful.) I was motivated by what I knew about Isadora Duncan. I wanted to let go, to create something that contained all the meaning it could, but which came through as more of a feeling than anything of specific significance. Frederick Ashton at aged 17, before he became one of Britain’s leading choreographers of ballet, said of Duncan:

She had the most extraordinary quality of repose. She would stand for what seemed quite a long time doing nothing, and then make a very small gesture that seemed full of meaning.” 


If meaning existed now, I thought, then anything that came organically out of what I already had, should subtly share its meaning.  Inspired by Duncan, I decided to begin by making a piece of movement. I took simply the idea of the grotesque as my stimulus, and made a movement piece which involved scratching my skin. I was happy with this, but unsure where to go next. There was no specific meaning to it, and therefore no obvious questions for me to ask. I found an article called Dance View; Plotless Dance-Drama that Deals in Emotions in the New York Times, in which Anderson says:

An increasing number of choreographers are creating works that attempt to present dramatic situations in a nonliteral manner. These works lack conventional narratives and yet are charged with such intense emotional conflicts that they cannot be categorized as ''abstract.'' 


In this article, Anderson compares  Kenneth MacMillan's Triad, (which he calls “annoyingly vague”) to Pina Bausch's Bluebeard, (which is apparently “richly evocative”). He criticizes MacMillan for failing to establish anything specific about his characters or setting, and then describes Bausch’s use of abstract context as thought-provoking. I am not contesting that Bausch’s work is more powerful than MacMillan’s, only the confidence with which Anderson explains why. How could I tell when it was appropriate to be vague, and when to be specific. This balance seemed to be what made this work powerful. I also became interested in the films of Wilhelm Wenders. He seemed often to be exploring things from so many different perspectives and I wondered how he made his decisions. David Tacon (2003) says about Wenders’ early short films:

This predilection for long sequences of apparently inconsequential subject matter would continue through his work, with their suggestive emptiness providing mood and depth to Wenders’ often linear narratives.  


The main problem I had with all of this was that, without the restrictions produced by being direct and specific about what you’re saying, I didn’t know how these artists decided what to do. If you can literally do anything, how do you make any decisions at all, and how do you differentiate between what works and what doesn’t? Or, if restrictions do exist for this kind of artist, what are they? It was all so counter-intuitive to me, and I began to wonder if it was something you couldn’t learn.

     Despite my struggle with this, I pushed on. I was told by my classmates that, in my scratching movement, it worked well when the lines from my nails lingered on my skin. So, in pursuit of this more subtle, abstract version of my ideas, I used that fairly random piece of feedback to inform my next step. The scratching became a routine in which I drew all over my body with red pen.

And this, through a similar process, evolved into the idea of covering my rope in red pigment which would transfer onto my skin when I performed. I loved this image, but as I had suspected, I was constantly battling with an uneasy feeling that what I was making was nonsense.

         In The Death of the Author, Barthes says about Valery “he unceasingly questioned and mocked the author, emphasized the linguistic and almost “chance” nature of his activity” (Barthes, 1967, pg.3). This beautifully articulates the problem I had with being less restricted and more aesthetically spontaneous in my work. But, as the indisputable author of my piece, I started wondering how I could even call myself an artist if I agreed so strongly with this. Whatever the reason, I was struggling so much with this way of working. I decided to go back to before I had decided to make a conscious change, and make a different one.

 I asked myself again what had been wrong with what I was doing, this time looking for a more precise answer. I saw that it was my assumption that I knew why people found tragedy enjoyable that was the problem. So I went looking for other people’s answers. And I found them, in shedloads, in philosophy.


   Firstly, I came across Essay XXII: Of Tragedy by David Hume (1742-1754) and realised that this question I had been asking was much more valid than I had appreciated. In fact I was surprised I had never asked it before now. Why do we go out of our way to experience something that makes us behave as if we are unhappy, and then say we enjoyed it? Researching this Hume essay further lead me to read Susan L. Feagin’s The Pleasures of Tragedy. I read theories by Aristotle, Edward Bullough and Ortega Y. Gassey, Burke, Radford, Weston and Marcia M Eaton. Each answer was different. I poured over them until I felt I had grasped them all as best I could, and even I think, began to generate a kind of hybrid answer of my own.

      Postitivism is described in The Essential Writing: August Comte and Positivism as:

A system of philosophy elaborated by Auguste Comte from 1830 onwards, which recognised only positive facts and observable phenomena, with the objective relations of these and the laws that determine them (Comte,1975,  p.xiv )


     August Comte believed that in any area of investigation, we must trust only the facts that we can perceive or that can be logically verified. I suppose that can be applied to art too, and this suited me very well. My piece had begun to feel much more like an investigation than any kind of self-expression. Everything I was doing was logical, and it all sprung from a genuine interest in observable things. 

     It was all becoming much more complicated than I had intended, every discovery I made unearthing more questions. Was I looking at my act as something aesthetic, and applying these theories in order to make it more successful? Or was I making a piece just based on the question and if so, could I really ignore the fact that I was using art to discuss a question I had about art? I really found these questions hard to answer. If I were to choose the former, I realised I had to make my act into a tragedy. I spent a day worrying about the moral implications of having what I felt like was a formula for the perfect tragedy, and no actual desire or impetus to create one beyond an almost scientific fascination with the concept, before deciding I was being melodramatic.

         I went through the theories one by one, attempting to discover each one’s significance in relation to my work. Obviously some of the theories contradict each other, and they’re not meant to work together. But making the most diplomatic combination seemed like the easiest was to involve every one. I identified what each of them would say I should do to create something tragic, and I made a list. In order to be a successful tragedy My piece needed to: be sad; be sad for a good reason; obviously not be real; be an imitation of something; relate to real life, to have nothing practical for the audience to attend to; be an aesthetic (as opposed to real) experience; be eloquent (have a high level of skill involved in its execution and content); have a conversion of feelings (juxtaposition).

The idea that it should relate to real life comes from Michael Weston. He doesn’t say that a tragedy need be realistic in order to be pleasurable, only that it need relatable. Eaton explains ( p. 58)

The fact that we can be moved by un- or non- naturalistic works of art shows that we are not (necessarily) moved by Anna Kerenina and the conception of life accompanying it. We are moved by the “significance we see in the work as a whole” (Weston, 1975, p.88,)


This idea sat nicely with my earlier, more abstract was of working. So did the idea that an enjoyable tragedy must allow a level of control or distance, which up for many of the theorists, but most prominently by Burke and Eaton. Eaton says “Often recognition that what we are reading, watching, hearing, etc. is ‘unreal’ is enough to assure us that we are ‘in control’” (Eaton, page 59)

But Burke and Aristotle also talk about imitation (Eaton, p. 56) and its place in the pleasurable tragedy. Burke discusses imitation as one way to distance the audience (and hence allow them to enjoy the work).

Choose a day on which to represent the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have…. And then when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts. (Burke,1759, p.76-77)


      So simply the fact that it is theatre is not real life is enough the audience to feel in control, and although imitation is never going to be as popular as the real thing, both Burke and Aristotle agree that we naturally find imitation pleasing.

And the soul, being, at the same time, roused by passions, and charmed by eloquence, feels on the whole a strong movement, which is altogether delightful (Hume, 1742-1754, p.3)


       David Hume argued that tragedy had to eloquently describe life in order to be pleasurable. All in all, if I was going to use these theories to create something sad, I felt that it had to be about something though not necessarily explicitly. I was especially intrigued by the idea of imitation. Realism is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a movement that “steered theatrical texts and performances toward greater fidelity to real life” .  Athough there is no way I could think of to authentically use realism in circus, (tricks always either became a spectacle or a metaphor, neither of which had a place in realism) some of the other conventions of the movement were relevant, the focus on empathy and identification, specifically. These things are the reason we enjoy tragedy, according to Feagin:

We find ourselves to be the kind of people who respond negatively to villainy, treachery, and injustice…. In a way it shows what we care for, and in showing us we care for the welfare of human beings, and that we deplore the immoral forces that defeat them, it reminds us of our common humanity. (Feagin)


    This enjoyment of our own reaction to something, Feagin called a meta response. We are glad that we can be sympathetic, that we have a negative reaction to negative things. Enjoying tragedy is not, then, a sign of callousness, or a perverse outlook, quite the opposite.

I had become so deeply involved in the question, that I couldn’t justify simplifying it. I didn’t want simply to make an effective tragedy, I wanted to discuss the question too. I would use these theories as instructions to create something tragic, but it would serve as an example of tragedy, something to be discussed with my audience. I wrote a piece of text, using the theories, in which I tried to answer the questions. It did cross my mind to come up with one definitive answer to my question and just present that to them, but then I thought about Roland Barthes Death of the Author. It felt odd after having worked so hard to have meaning in my work, but, ultimately, it was the mystery I was concerned with. I didn’t and don’t believe in a singular truth. Ideally I wanted my work to lead to further inquiry. So, within my text, I presented each theory as a question beginning with “what if…” Another result of this was that I was openly discussing my methods. I’ve always liked this idea. Peter Brook says about popular theatre that:

There is only one factor that they all have in common - A roughness. Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that’s not in a theatre, ...on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, ... joining in, answering back. (Brook,1968, p.65)


 Rough Theatre is one of the four kinds of performance he describes in An Empty Space. One of its conventions is that the work is honest about its means of production.  According to Burke, awareness that what we’re seeing isn’t real allows us to relax and enjoy the work. Being honest about how I had produced the work would have his effect. For all of these reasons, I chose to present all the answers to my audience.

 In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader” (Barthes, 1967, p.6)


       If the audience decide the meaning of the piece, then it follows that the purpose is for the audience to see themselves in the work, not for the author to show themselves. In an even more direct way than I think Brathes meant, this is what my piece was doing. Its subject was the audience experience. I never once attempted to reveal myself as a performer. In fact in my text I include myself in the collective audience “What if we enjoy tragedy simply because we are inconsistent…”

     The idea I had had during the second, more abstract phase of my work of covering my rope in red pigment kept playing on my mind, and I had been working on it intermittently. I was unsure whether I could justify including it now that I had gone back to a stage before that, and essentially started again from there. There were too completely disconnected parallel processes going on, the aesthetic and the conceptual, but  both were manifestations of the same thing, and I decided I could justify continuing with both. So caught u was I its origin, I didn’t notice until I began to rehears how appropriate the imagery was. The red powder on my rope just looked like blood, and the “wounds” that gradually appeared on my body  fitted perfectly with my tragic piece. 

       When I was in the early stages of rehearsal, with my rope and my music and recording and costume, I realised the meaning wasn’t nearly as clear as it might have been. And although I had been battling with my own passionate will to adhere to my meaning, somehow I didn’t mind. I made little changes on a whim, based purely on my aesthetic sense, and felt excited by it. It didn’t feel dishonest. I realised that I had let go. I didn’t want to present a definitive truth, and I had said everything that I could, based on my own limitations. I was watching some videos of sections of Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976), and I wondered if it had affected my change in attitude to my work. I loved Wilson’s work so much. He made pieces based on ideas which were meant to act directly upon you, not to represent, and it had such an effect on me that I think I started to feel less reverential towards my ideas.

      I didn’t really feel as though my audience would understand exactly what my piece was about, but I began to wonder again about my decision to use philosophical theories to make art. Was it okay to do this? Not only did it allow you, if done well, to be incredibly manipulative, but it would, eventually make the study of aesthetics in philosophy impossible. How can we study the behaviour and patterns of the artist or audience if either or both are influenced by the philosophies themselves? I thought I’d found a way to devise which satisfied my scientific mind, but I think I have to accept that these theories are not meant to be instructive, and that art will forever remain intuitive.  





bottom of page